As she undergoes gruelling preparation for a 70km trek through the 50°C heat of the Negev desert, JLife’s Elaine Bermitz diarises her unfanatical approach to fitness, overcoming self doubts and lockdown overindulgence to discover a side of herself she never knew.
So I decided to do the Magen David Adom (MDA) walk in October 2020 to raise much-needed money for the charity’s Rahat dispatch station near Be’er Sheva, the largest city in the Negev desert of southern Israel. Richard is finishing work and wants a challenge to mark his retirement and put clear blue water between himself and his working life. Me? I just want to see clear blue sky. I’ve done charity walks before, including WaterAids Walk for Water (10,000 steps a day for 40 days!), so I’m not afraid of heights, heat or a challenge. Richard is fit anyway and actually enjoys physical exercise. Me? I like to read, write and talk. But a challenge is a challenge, and I don’t want to spend my life making cups of tea and listening to other people’s stories. That’s it then? We’ll do it.
Lockdown. It won’t last long. Six weeks to start walking, think ourselves into things, get a list of sponsors, start writing.
It’s not over. The walk is cancelled until October 2021.
How much do I weigh? Well yes, I have been baking banana cake, chocolate cake, cheesecake – anything that ends in cake.
I don’t want to do this. I’m 65 next birthday. My shorts don’t fit. The only thing that does is an old pair of leggings that make me look like I’m off to clean the dustbin. Richard is delighted to have left work. He’s learned bridge, re-joined the gym, got himself an annoyingly attractive, thin trainer (curse her) and proudly shows me his “rugby legs” after every session. He enjoys it – the sweat, the endorphins, the protein-rich food. He refuses cake with a smug smile, reaching for the fruit. I eat it in the kitchen. He doesn’t ache. Why doesn’t he ache? He tells me it’s his baseline fitness and suggests more soups and vegetarian food – does he know how long it takes to make vegetarian dishes? Luckily, we have rented a dog to see us through lockdown. A sweet elderly neighbour was having trouble as her dog walker refused to come because of COVID, so we volunteered. That was in March 2020. A year later we are still doing it. Even the dog is fitter than me.
I treat myself to a trainer. I tell her what we intend to do. Walk 70km in five days in the Negev desert. She looks at me. “It’s for charity,” I say, “I’ve done it before”. “How long ago?” she asks. “Not long,” I lie. I was 50 and now, I’m sort of just coming up to 65… She sighs and shows me how to work the treadmill, then she demonstrates the skier and sets me 2,000 metres to do. “I do 10,000” she says, helpfully. I hate her. Three times a week on a Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday I hate her. I hate kale too. It sticks in your teeth, flashing green when you smile. But it is good for me.
Okay, if professional sportsmen can give their all to win a trophy and fail, what chance has an overaged poser got? And for the England football squad, it’s their careers at stake. At least the Negev won’t be as hot as Qatar, where their next challenge will be – and there won’t be TV cameras to capture any humiliation. It poured for the whole day yesterday and my legs were granted a welcome rest, until a pause bought the opportunity for a gentle walk in the evening. No excuse today though and, grabbing my water, gym pass, and willpower, I fling myself out of the front door, looking the part, feeling like imposter of the year. On the treadmill muttering curses at Jason, the friendly computerised workout enthusiast, I press the ‘intermediate hill walking’ program. Last week I couldn’t finish it.
This week I swear I will. My legs start to ache – the hips and lower back are, according to Jason’s smug instructions, all in the wrong place to encourage powerful easy strides. Even the breathing is wrong. My face is red, my thighs burn. Jason tells me to “up the incline”. I wonder where exactly he would like me to put the incline up. I persevere. “Only thirty more seconds”, he crows failing to break a sweat. “Keep those arms tucked in.” I persevere and am at last allowed to take down the speed and cool off. I drink – no, rehydrate – and gasp before bumping up the speed a couple of points. Sweat pours down my neck, my cleavage, my arms. A sneaking sense of pride approaches my consciousness, along with the endorphins emitting from G-d knows where, as I glance down and find there are only five more minutes to go on the program. It’s hardly the run up to take a penalty, but it’s still a challenge, and it’s my challenge, so on completion, buoyed up by success, I smile, clocking the statistics. “OK”, says Jason, still not sweating, “that’s the warmup. Now enjoy what other exercises you have in store for today.” In your dreams mate. I have found a new person to hate.
I remember the walk is in less than two months’ time. Help! It’s more than just a challenge though. It’s an act of faith. If I believe in it long enough, I will lay the ghost of that person whom exercise just passed by, powerless to impress against a world of Victorian novels, desperate 1960s poets and grim Russian polemicists, whose heroism peopled my imagination. I may not be competitive but there is some pride lurking in my psyche. It is not allowing me to duck out of a project that I have committed to. Nor will I let down those who have shelled out their hard-earned cash to help me help others.
To sponsor Elaine and Richard, visit Charityextra.com/trek2021/32162.
Good luck Elaine, we look forward to seeing some great photos in the next